Jason Mraz's latest outing brought lesser-known musicians before a modest crowd at DAR Constitution Hall on Thursday night. After a video advertisement for Mraz's upcoming live CD and DVD, the show kicked off with a brief performance by Makana, a Hawaiian slack-key guitarist whose talented finger work was overpowered by his oppressive vibrato.
Next up, the evening's best all-around performer, Raul Midon, tapped, plucked and strummed his guitar, creating a wealth of sounds that gave the illusion of a full band behind him. Midon, who is blind, sang with a voice as silky as Seal's, pursed his lips to imitate a trumpet, and had the audience hanging on to his every word.
Mraz lost Midon's momentum as he filled the spaces between songs (and interludes in the middle of songs) with inane banter, as if trying to create an intimate coffeehouse feel. Or perhaps he just liked the sound of his own voice, as he showed the crowd how well he could scat and later pondered the lack of synonyms for "lips." When he did sing, Mraz often strung lyrics together quickly in a near-rap, but the songs that worked better relied less on his tongue-twisting and more on simple melodies, like the melancholy "Halfway Home."
After a 90-minute set, Mraz returned for an encore of his current radio hit, "Curbside Prophet." Rather than performing with instruments, he boldly opted for an a cappella version, with Midon rocking the bass line and three other tour mates (Makana, DJ Bob Necksnapp and percussionist Jennifer Lowe) joining in. Although this song featured the night's most tasteless subtext, Mraz's risky, nontraditional arrangement lifted his set from mediocrity to end the night on a solid note.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Hot Club of Cowtown
Stepping back in time was something of a theme at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Thursday night. A pair of trios with roots in bygone styles -- Hot Club of Cowtown from Austin and the Avett Brothers from Concord, N.C. -- played engaging sets that managed to sound half a century old and thoroughly modern all at once.
Flame-throwing fiddle player Elana Fremerman and guitarist Whit Smith are the mainstays of Hot Club, with bassist Jake Erwin rounding out the trio. The western swing band plays with such panache and polish it seems entirely effortless. And so its jazzy, breezy set evoked an altogether different, simpler era. That was true whether covering classic songs like "Ida Red" and "Li'l Liza Jane" or performing the Fremerman-penned "Secret of Mine" and "Forget-Me-Nots." The band's style is so convincing it was even able to take Aerosmith's "Chip Away the Stone" and make it sound like an old-timey country classic.
Old-timey country is certainly the effect the Avett Brothers are chasing. The young trio's neo-hillbilly sound is bursting with yawps and stamps and the occasional murderous yell that could only have been fueled by demons or high-octane moonshine. But Scott (banjo) and Seth (guitar) Avett also created magical, truly lovely harmonies on songs like "Pretty Girl at the Airport" and, a local favorite, "Pretty Girl From Annapolis." (For those counting at home, they didn't choose to play either "Pretty Girl From Raleigh" or "Pretty Girl From Locust.") With admirable help from Bob Crawford on upright bass, the brothers' set of original songs sounded entirely convincing as they visited the requisite bluegrass themes of death, God and heartbreak. But the real accomplishment was that their songs didn't simply replicate an old sound but infused it with new energy and ideas. Then again, maybe that was just the moonshine.
-- Joe Heim